Agents, Double Agents or Brokers? The Changing Agency of Intermediary Tribal Groups in the Ming Empire (1368-1644)

Liping Wang, University of Hong Kong
Geng Tian, Peking University

Intermediaries are social agents situated between heterogeneous environments, cultures, and organizations. More than often, intermediaries are middlemen between power centers and their agency with regard to two power centers are ambiguous because of their location. They can be advantageous brokers bridging otherwise disconnected parties, or vulnerable marginals suffering from the impingement of neighboring power holders. How to reconcile these two different visions of the intermediaries? Under what conditions intermediaries change from one mode of agency to the other? Previous scholarship attributes the agency of intermediaries to positionality. This paper argues for the changing opportunity structure around the position of the intermediary, which is shaped by multi-level relational dynamics. Based on a systematic study of the horse trade data, we examine the changing agency of three intermediary tribal groups (i.e. the northwestern Tibetans, the Uriyangqad Mongols, and the Jurchens), situated between sedentary Chinese and the nomadic Mongols during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The most important connection between the intermediaries and the two power centers was horse trade. We study the changing flows of trade contact among them, and explain why these intermediaries became agent, double agent and broker in trading with the Chinese and Mongols in different eras. We argue that the positionality of intermediary does not produce definite advantages to be exploited by the occupants of the position, or definite disadvantages disabling them. Rather, the position of the intermediary procures uncertain opportunities, shaped by the relational dynamics between the intermediary and power centers, and especially shaped by the interaction between the power centers. Moreover, the substantial interest and internal organization of the intermediaries, and the strategies and tactics they adopt, determine their capacity to capitalize on the uncertain opportunities when they emerge.

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 Presented in Session 184. Social Actors inside, outside, and in between Early Modern States